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New Ulster CEO needs to stand up to the IRFU - Neil Best

Relationships feed on credibility, honesty and consistency

If I’d known that the core criteria for Ulster Rugby’s new CEO were; former international flanker, early 40s, commercial experience outside rugby and Scots (or Ulster-Scots) background, I might have applied myself – but alas I didn’t, and yesterday Ulster unveiled the former Edinburgh Managing Director John Petrie as the new CEO of Ulster Rugby.

It’s interesting that of all the many names that were bandied about as potential successors to Shane Logan, the name John Petrie didn’t really feature. Yet he clearly ticks the boxes of a good rugby pedigree and commercial experience. And he’s likely to start out more measured in his ambition and optimism than his predecessor – Petrie instantly brings paper credibility.

I’ve played against him but have no stand out memories that gives me a sense of his character or temperament. But what he needs to come to terms with early on is the character of the club and its fans.  Despite Belfast being a smaller city than Edinburgh or Glasgow, Ulster is a bigger club both in terms of fan base and expectation. It’s also a not just a city club, it represents a much wider region.

And although he may feel that in a large part the measure of his success should be commercial – he will be judged on what happens on the pitch, no matter how successful the money side is off it.

It’s also only a matter of time before some local journalist asks him about the forced departures or Jackson and Olding or indeed that of Ruan Pienaar before them. They’ll not only ask him about whether those decisions were right, but about the way they were handled too.

The fans are desperate for leadership at Ulster that is prepared to stand up to the IRFU and be seen to take decisions in Ulster Rugby’s interest. And John will need to decide how, at what point and on what issue he’s prepared to send the signal to the fans – that he’s that man.

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When Shane Logan took over he set out to grow rugby in the southern counties of Ulster Monaghan, Cavan and Donegal, and has had some success with emerging talent in the academy such as Joe Dunleavy.

I think John should set a different target of breaking the class divide of Ulster’s playing pool. The local component of the Ulster squad remains virtually exclusively Grammar school educated. Yet vast numbers of prospective players reside outside the grammar school system. And of the sixty plus grammar schools in Northern Ireland only a handful really produce players for the current squad or academy. Ulster still operates like a farmer who only harvests one field yet complains of the volume and quality of output.

But the best thing for John coming in will be the welcome he receives. For historic reasons the psychology of Belfast is still really keen to see a visitor. And the fans will get behind him creating time and space for him to show his worth.

It’s quite common in Belfast for guests to pitch up with a gift -I don’t know if that applies to incoming CEOs, but if it doesn’t he could do a lot worse than bringing backrow Bill Mata with him -a player Edinburgh have really got the best out of. And that will be Petrie’s job at Ulster -to get the best out of everyone.

Every great person is always being helped by everybody; for their gift is to get good out of all things and all persons.

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New Ulster CEO needs to stand up to the IRFU - Neil Best | RugbyPass